Tuesday, October 29, 2013

As Time Goes By, Casablanca Still Speaks To Us

[1942, Michael Curtiz Dir., Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Dooley Wilson, Claude Rains, S.Z. Sakall, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre]

Even if you’ve never seen this picture, you’ll know it by reputation; you’ll know it by name alone. Casablanca has been an inspiration to generations of filmmakers, poets and lovers. I can think of no other film whose legacy has been as far reaching or whose testimonial is as relevant today as the day of its release.
Like most truly great films, Casablanca’s plot is disarmingly simple but populated by complex characters. Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) owns the Café Americain in Casablanca, a Moroccan weigh-station to refugees fleeing Nazi occupied Europe. Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is Rick’s old flame who walks back into his life as she and her husband Victor (Paul Henreid) - an resistance leader – are attempting to escape the Gestapo. An emotionally convoluted tale of passion, jealousy and hate ensues as Ilsa attempts to secure a pair of exit visas from Rick for her and Victor while also reconciling her feelings for the saloonkeeper. Rick himself is compromised not only by churning emotions over Ilsa, but the awkward situation of holding the exit visas as a favor to Ugarte (Peter Lorre), a low-level criminal, who died in police custody. Rick never wanted the exit visas, and he never wanted to see Ilsa again, but as he points out: this is a crazy world.
Humphrey Bogart became a star playing Rick Blaine. Prior to Casablanca, Bogart had made his way in Hollywood portraying an assortment of uninspired gangsters. The Maltese Falcon – released the year before - might be considered his break-out role, but really, it was just his first starring performance, albeit a good one. However, Rick Blaine is more than the prototypical (stereotypical?) private eye Sam Spade; Rick was a cynical man not without his vulnerabilities, an idealist, a businessman, a friend and a man in love just as capable of being hurt as the rest of us. Bogart breathed life into Rick, hitting every emotional mark and delivering some of the most quoted lines in film history with a coolness I’m sure has influenced actors from James Dean to Clint Eastwood.
There are many fine performances in Casablanca, from the obliquely creepy Peter Lorre as Ugarte to the smarmy suave of Claude Rains’ depiction of Renault, Casablanca’s police Prefect.  Dooley Wilson is best remembered for his role as Sam the piano man, Rick’s friend and confidant; Dooley was able to project a caring affection for Rick without coming across as melodramatic. Likewise with S.Z. Sakall - himself a refugee from Austria-Hungary - who played Rick’s Maitre ‘D Carl with affable charm, warmth and humor.
It says something about Casablanca that of all its’ dozens of speaking roles only three actors were born in the United States. This Hollywood set was very much like the place it was representing: packed with refugees from a war-ravaged Europe trying to survive. Nowhere is this sad irony better illustrated than in the story of Marcel Dalio who plays the croupier at Rick’s. A revered actor in his native France, Dalio starred in Le Grande Illusion (1937) and Rules of the Game (1939), both classics from French filmmaker Jean Renoir. After France fell to the Nazis, Dalio went on the run, and found himself playing a bit-part in what was at the time a minor Warner Bros. production. C’est la vie? No, c’est la guerre.
Ingrid Bergman literally takes my breath away in this film as Ilsa; the younger woman from Rick’s Parisian past whose youthful exuberance, even innocence, shined light into his world-weary soul. Not only does she possess an arresting beauty (filmed always from her “good” side by cinematographer Arthur Edeson) but Miss Bergman renders one of her finest, most natural, performances in Casablanca. Emoting deep love for two men, the quandary her heart creates for herself and those around her moves us to empathy. Ultimately, we come to recognize with Ilsa that her fate, her future and perhaps the future of the world rests with Rick – the man she abandoned without explanation, whose battle-hardened heart she touched and then broke. I cannot think of any other actress in 1942 who could have taken us on such an emotional journey so convincingly and yet so seemingly effortlessly.
     There is hardly a frame of Casablanca that cannot be proudly printed and posted on your wall, real or cyber. Filmed by the late Arthur Edeson whose credits also included The Maltese Falcon (1941) and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), this man’s use of shadows and shallow depth of field in black and white is masterful 1940s photography. Edeson’s close-ups are portraits, intimate and character defining; his long shots intricately composed with action in both the background and forefront evoke an almost documentary realism. Technicolor was certainly available in 1942, but Warner Bros. understated film only rated a budget to cover black and white photography. The world should be grateful, because like those snapshots we have of our grandparents back in the 1940s, monochrome images convey this era in a way color never could. In Edeson’s work on Casablanca there is now nostalgia, a wistfully imagined understanding of what Rick and Ilsa’s world looked like in the darkest days of WW II. Also, there is truth in the beauty of b/w, something that would be lost in the vibrant shades of Technicolor.
Edeson’s imagery coupled with Charles Jules Weyl’s art direction elevated Casablanca’s sense of location, creating a singular sense of atmosphere. The secretive shadows of Rick’s Café and the now ubiquitous, slowly-turning ceiling fans of The Green Parrot were conventions used in previous films, but never before did they fully add so much to a story. The ceiling fans were a constant reminder not only of the Moroccan desert’s heat, but of the troubles hanging over the heads of Rick, Ilsa and Victor. The shadows and dark corners created by the film’s Moorish architecture exuded an exotic film noir texture, but their presence was not so much sinister as symbolic of secrets, not only between characters, but secrets characters kept from themselves. The depths of Rick’s heart, or the inner workings of Renault’s self-serving mind, these were what lurked in those shadows, not gangsters with Tommy Guns.
     Casablanca strikes a chord still higher than atmosphere and romance. The careful viewer will observe that events in this film occur in the week immediately prior to Sunday, December 7th, 1941 – a very intentional setting. Casablanca tapped into the zeitgeist of its time, when the whole world felt the unwanted burden of having to stand up against tyranny and oppression. It also references U.S. isolationism before that infamous December morning when Rick, finding himself caught up in not only the whirlwind of WW II but of the emotional turmoil created by Ilsa’s return, ponders drunkenly “If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York? I’ll bet they’re asleep, I’ll bet they’re sleeping all over America”. Nowhere is the clarion call to arms and personal sacrifice heard clearer than in the Casablanca’s legendary final scene. Rick’s decision to send Ilsa out of Casablanca with Victor went beyond not wanting to break up a marriage, Rick knew his sacrifice would quite probably save lives and foster a future better than the present.
No piece about Casablanca would be complete without praising “As Time Goes By”, the most evocative and recognizable song ever to come out of a film. Written almost a decade prior to its inclusion in Casablanca, “As Time Goes By” was in the text of the unproduced stage play this film was based on. Its timeless quality lends credence to the film’s themes and its melody, worked into score, succeeded in creating a number of moods with its variations. Haunting and charming, the lyrics speak of fundamental truths, the fight for love and glory, it’s always the same old story. There are many fundamental truths to be found in Casablanca, truths that spoke to audiences in 1942, still speak to us today, and most likely will continue to do so for generations to come.
Little is sacred in LA, this was never more obvious than in 1994 when “Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind” hit television with Timothy Dalton as Rhett Butler. Besides the poorly received Michael Walsh novel “As Time Goes By”, there is a script currently making rounds in Hollywood for a Casablanca sequel based on a synopsis written by one of this classic’s original screenwriters. Purists by now are scoffing and loading their cannons with derision, but I think, based on what I’ve heard of the plot, that the producers - The Warner Sisters Company - may have something. Should the sequel Return to Casablanca be made? Sure, why not, if the original source material is treated with the proper care and respect, absolutely! Will it be the same? Not if the filmmakers do their job right; the best sequels build on the original story and its characters, and the Warner sisters’ property sounds like it does just that. Some sequels have surpassed the original, but could a Return to Casablanca ever be as successful as its parent? Probably not, but then no one knows the future. A sequel could work; if done properly, anything can work. But there are elements to Casablanca’s success that can never be repeated, some things are simply beyond the control of writers, producers, directors and actors.
I’ve said that there is a mere handful of motion pictures I feel qualify as genuine works of art. As a corollary to that statement I’d like to add this: there are even fewer films I can think of that have righteously achieved the status of legend. Casablanca is 102 minutes of old Hollywood magic, and is known to even casual movie watchers, regardless of age or taste preference, the world over. Though hardly a technically perfect film – the ridiculous angle of the model plane landing and the rear-projection scenes only remind us we’re watching an old movie – Casablanca inhabits a special place in the collective psyche of western culture. Casablanca is more than just a film, it is a celluloid time capsule that shows us today the generation who made it, where they were in history, and what was important to them. It is also their message to us, their posterity, that there were and always will be things worth fighting for, and sacrificing for, things more important than our own individual needs and desires.

[“Casablanca” is currently available on DVD & Blu-Ray through Netflix, the Blu-Ray version offers fun and informative commentary from the late Roger Ebert.]

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